HOPE Holiday Shop offers free toys to kids

MIDDLEBURY — Area residents with a steady income can look forward each year to “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” to get great deals on holiday gifts.
But there are some in Addison County who can’t afford to make purchases even when they are marked down 60 percent.
Fortunately for those folks, there’s a local gift that keeps on giving — the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effect (HOPE) Holiday Shop, which annually offers free clothing, toys and books to Addison County families who would otherwise not be able to give their kids much of anything for Christmas.
Alicia, a divorced mom from Starksboro who is on disability and has a 7-year-old daughter, was among the qualifying parents browsing through the bounty of gift selections on Monday at the Holiday Shop, located in the Community Services Center on Boardman Street in Middlebury. Monday was opening day for the shop, which will serve an estimated 400 and 600 Addison County children, ages birth through 18, by the time it closes for the season on Dec. 23.
“It’s very hard for families like us to be able to afford Christmas for our kids, especially with the way the economy is going right now,” said Alicia, who is on disability and asked that her full name not be revealed. “And it’s really expensive, food-wise and gift-wise.”
She discovered the HOPE Holiday Shop around six years ago, when her daughter was 1. She has used the service annually to supplement what she is able to buy her daughter with her limited funds.
“It’s a good opportunity for kids to have a little extra for Christmas,” she said of the shop. “If it wasn’t for this, us low-income adults would not be able to afford Christmas presents for our kids.”
The HOPE shop, Alicia said, has also allowed her to maintain her daughter’s belief in Santa Claus. The shop hours allow her to discreetly pick out gifts while her daughter is at school.
“I’m happy to see my daughter’s face on Christmas morning,” Alicia said. “I’m glad that people do this for us, and I’m glad it gives our kids a chance to experience what it’s like to have these kinds of gifts.”
The gifts are diverse, colorful, utilitarian and selected with the goal of exercising the children’s imaginations, according to HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross. The puzzles, mittens, coats, toy trucks, board games, rocket ships, books, miniature cars and many other items have all been provided by area residents or purchased by HOPE with donated funds. A nice chunk of the inventory comes from gift idea tags that contributors pluck from Christmas trees set up at area businesses, churches and institutions, including Middlebury College, UTC Aerospace Systems, the National Bank of Middlebury, Agri-Mark/Cabot, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Weybridge Congregational Church. The St. Ambrose, St. Mary’s and St. Peter’s Catholic Churches have already sent in gifts from their respective donations efforts. Porter Hospital and Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School are also conducting holiday  toy drives this year, according to Montross.
Helen Haerle is among a handful of local volunteers who help stock and operate the Holiday Shop each year. Her specialty is supervising the shop displays and keeping account of the inventory of gifts. Haerle is perfect for the job for two major reasons: She coordinated the former St. Mary’s Christmas Shop for 15 years before merging that operation with HOPE’s annual effort; and she gained a wealth of retail experience as owner of the former Lazarus Department Store in Middlebury.
“People are so generous; they give really nice things,” Haerle said.
“It always feels good to do something for somebody else.
In order to qualify for a shopping trip at the HOPE Holiday Store, parents cannot earn a household income of more than 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That’s around $44,000 (pre-tax) annually for a family of four, according to Montross.
HOPE officials will also consider hardship cases involving parents who might have some savings, but who have recently fallen on hard times — such as a job loss or house fire, for example.
“It’s for low-income people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have gifts for their children, unless they were using the rent money or the fuel money,” Montross explained.
Holiday Shop customers are assigned gift limits based on family size. In general, qualifying families, according to Montross, can make the following selections per child: one toy, something warm to wear or an outfit that “makes them feel good,” a game or craft, and up to four books.
“We want to promote reading, literacy and empowerment,” Montross said.
There are additional stacks of surplus material from which parents can choose a family gift, or smaller toys, Montross noted.
“Lillian” was another parent carefully combing through the Holiday Shop’s gift selections on Monday. She lingered a little longer than Alicia, and with good reason; Lillian has six children at home and has limited work hours. Lillian (not her real name) diligently shops at clearance sales most of the year in order to get presents at the lowest possible cost, but she can only stretch a dollar so far.
This is the fourth year she’s availed herself of Holiday Shop merchandise, and she’s grateful for the help.
“I think this is a Godsend; it’s so helpful and I appreciate it more than words can express,” Lillian said of the free gifts for her children.
Montross knows there are many more Addison County parents like Alicia and Lillian who depend on the Holiday Shop to allow their children — for at least one day — to share in the excitement that other kids feel in receiving something nice and new on Christmas morning.
“What we’re trying to do is level the playing field a little bit,” Montross said of the shop.
She recalled a particularly emotional case on a Christmas Eve a few years ago involving a mom who was crying in a vehicle parked in the HOPE parking lot. The woman explained she had no food and no Christmas gifts to offer her son. Montross said HOPE officials were able to bring her into the building to make some gift and food selections. Her little boy’s eyes lit up when he saw a can of baked beans in the food shelf.
“We’re going to be able to eat beans for dinner!” the boy exclaimed to his mom, according to Montross.
Donors can drop their gifts off at HOPE’s Boardman Street headquarters during business hours, Monday through Friday. The gifts should be unwrapped. Folks looking for ideas of specific gifts to buy can get a list of suggestions by emailing [email protected].
The HOPE Holiday Gift Shop is now open to qualifying parents Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., until Dec. 23. The shop will also be open from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Dec. 17, for folks unable to visit during the workweek. Montross stressed that parents must first call ahead (388-3608) to make an appointment to pick out gifts from the shop.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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